It’s the Material Girl vs. the “bad girl” of French politics.
On July 15, officials for extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) announced the party has decided to sue Madonna for using an image of Le Pen with a swastika on her forehead during a July 14 Paris concert. The move came after the pop diva’s Paris show beamed a video featuring morphing facial images, including one of Le Pen with a swastika superimposed on it. That then melted into a shot of a Hitler look-alike. The segment also contained imagery of other world leaders the singer presumably has problems with, such as Pope Benedict, Sarah Palin, Hu Jintao and Hosni Mubarak. Le Pen first caught wind of the morphing video after it was used during a May performance in Israel. “If she tries that in France, we’ll see what happens,” Le Pen said, threatening litigation — then speculating about Madonna’s motives for using her unflatteringly enhanced photo. “It’s understandable … aging singers who need publicity go to such extremes.” (Le Pen, 43, is 10 years younger than Madonna.)
But if the singer gets mostly applause from international audiences who identify Le Pen as Europe’s best-known face of xenophobic right-wing politics, she may find herself with fewer allies in France as a result of associating Le Pen with Nazism. The reason? Though Le Pen presides over a reactionary and Islamophobic party, she’s also clearly not a fascist, not a Nazi and not Hitler. In fact, she’s not even her father Jean-Marie Le Pen — who made revisionist comments and anti-Semitic statements part of his notorious public discourse. Comparisons of Le Pen and her party to her father’s rule over the FN not only leave many people in France feeling Madonna’s jab misunderstands Le Pen’s relatively moderate positioning but even victimizes her with an unfair association with the Nazi symbol.
Indeed, since becoming FN leader in January 2011, the younger Le Pen has angered many party veterans and traditionalists by expelling groups and individuals associated with extremism and neo-Nazi sympathies. According to those detractors, Le Pen is selling out many of the ultra-right tenets and currents that her father built the party with in her quest to make it more respectable.
And that’s what makes her a viable danger to the French political mainstream. With her brand of “reactionary lite,” Le Pen now threatens to reach millions of voters who previously shunned her father’s FN as neofascist. By attacking Marine Le Pen with a powerful but inappropriate symbol, Madonna may have offended more than just the 6.4 million people who cast ballots for Le Pen during France’s first round of presidential polling. “We can’t accept this despicable association,” declared FN vice president Florian Philippot in announcing the decision to file suit. “Marine Le Pen [will] defend her own honor, but also those of [party] members, supporters and millions of National Front voters.”
While no one outside of the FN — pundits, politicians or legal experts — has stepped up to defend France’s iconic reactionary against the pop queen’s swipe, an uneasy ambivalence emerged when Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, spokeswoman of France’s leftist government, said it was “unfortunate” that Le Pen was associated with the Nazi symbol.
What happens now? Should the court case against Madonna be heard and ruled in Le Pen’s favor quickly, the singer could be fined and forced to edit out the offending images from her other French concert in Nice on Aug. 21. More likely, experts say, the suit will take longer to come to trial, and the court is likely to accept Madonna’s anticipated arguments that the video is an artistic expression covered by freedom-of-speech statutes.
Yet even if she loses that case, Le Pen looks likely to come out ahead in terms of French public sympathy. If Madonna’s objective was to discredit Le Pen with the virtual swastika tattoo, the actual result for the FN leader may be a publicity windfall.